Prabhas Pokharel contributed research and writing to this post.
In a previous Idea Lab post, we described how to add location information to mobile content, including images and stories. For some reports, location information adds value, context, and interest to venue-specific reports. But today, we talk about how to remove that same location information. This is also detailed, step by step, in the screencast below.
There are many reasons why one would not want to include location information on content or images, but at the top of the list is the need for security and privacy. For journalists, citizen reporters, and activists to be secure in insecure regions — especially when reporting in repressive media environments — careful planning and strategic considerations are required.
How does location information get added to smartphone photos? All cell phones have a small amount of storage space on the SIM card. This is where contact information, call history, SMS messages, and, of course, mobile photos are saved. Most smartphones also store the time photos are taken and may include location information, such as the photos’ latitude and longitude coordinates.
Step One: Check to see if location information is being captured.
The first step is to see if location information is, indeed, being captured and stored with your images. Most pictures from smartphones today have location information stored in the metadata.
To see whether there is location data stored in your photo, you will need to use a tool that reads location-based EXIF data. On most smartphones, you can check this via the photo gallery. From the gallery, press Menu to get details. If you can’t tell from your camera or smartphone alone, you can also check on your computer.
On a Mac, open the image in Preview, click Tools, select the Inspector tab, and go to the GPS section where the latitude and longitude of the image are (potentially) shown.
In Windows, right click on the image, click Properties, select the Details tab, and scroll down to the GPS section, where location may be shown.
If neither of these options work, you can also use an EXIF viewer. Just upload the image in question, and the viewer can determine what, if any, location information is available. Again, if specific latitude and longitude information is available, it will be shown here.
Step Two: Remove the location data.
Once you know whether your image has location information attached to it, you can now go about removing it. The safest way to remove EXIF data is to upload your photo to the computer and remove the data using software.
This can be done with free or trial tools. For example, you can download a tool called PhotoLinker, which is designed to let you edit and remove location information.
To remove EXIF data in PhotoLinker, use the program to open the image and view its location information. You will also see a detailed map and a list of all other tagged data, including a timestamp. Using this software, you can remove or change the information under Photos/Remove GPS information, and re-save the image before sharing or publishing it. (Watch this in action in the screencast above.)
In addition to the location it comes from, EXIF data may also reveal other information about your phone such as its make and model. There may be instances where you want to retain certain information, while removing other data. For example, you may want to leave in the make and model of the phone as well as the date and time of the photo, but remove the location information.
Step Three: Check your defaults.
Another way to remove location data is to have your photo sharing site scrub the location information for you. The two most popular sites in the U.S., Facebook and Flickr, both do this. As of last year, it was the default policy on each service.
The Flickr policy can be accessed here. Under “Defaults for New Uploads,“ make sure that “Import EXIF location data” says “No.” This will ensure that the default for new photos is to not import any location information that may be on the metadata for the image.
However, do note that for sensitive photographs, importing to Flickr still contains risks. The location data removal is done at Flickr’s servers and anyone able to access your photograph while it is being uploaded to Flickr will be able to access its embedded location information.
The same is true of Facebook, which — for now, at least — strips location data off all images.
Do you have any additional experience using EXIF data? Do you have any stories about when removing location data came in handy — or would have? Please leave your insights in the comments below.
> How to Add Location Information to Mobile Content